Although I do watch the occasional debate, particularly as the general election season starts rolling around, I have to admit that I don’t particularly like them in general. Debates can be a fantastic tool when utilized by advocacy groups and activists who want to help discuss and clarify something for the benefit of the public, but that’s not what we get to deal with on the campaign trail. Worst of all, it likely makes the whole process more difficult for everyone.
The problem with debates is that their format, particularly with unscreened questions, emphasizes the immediacy of a response. Yes, there’s a lot of schadenfreude to be had when a candidate stumbles and gets flustered because he doesn’t have a good answer, but is that how we decide a good candidate for office versus bad? Are we expecting our potential leaders to be in a room, making world-changing decisions on the fly with no reference materials or collaborators on hand?
Winning a debate isn’t a matter of having the best information, it’s a matter of being the best at debating. That’s why debate clubs exist, and why there are books on the subject. There are techniques and methods to debating that aren’t founded upon being correct, and it’s not particularly difficult to “win” a debate even when your stance is dead wrong. Just watch your average pundit for evidence of that one; many of them are fantastic at twisting and spinning the focus of the conversation until the other guy is beaten into submission, even if later research proves that the host was wrong from the beginning.
What we end up with is a contest that shows little as to how well this person will lead. Just because a candidate is fantastic on the debate trail and always has a snappy comeback doesn’t mean they can be a good president. Now keep in mind I’m saying this from Obama’s side of things, knowing full well that whoever he lands against is gonna find themselves quickly out-debated by Barry-O. So sure, that makes me as a Democrat happy, but Obama’s oratory skills are not why I consider him the better presidential candidate.
Take two potential presidents. One has all the social skills of a lawn ornament, and the other is bright, personable, and a great speaker. The latter isn’t big on reading, and likes to shoot from the hip, while the former is a voracious reader and tends to stay up incredibly late to devour as much information as he can before coming up with a careful decision. One guy will look great on TV and make good news sound bytes, but the other is who you want in charge of the world’s biggest superpower.
A far better notion would be to give each candidate a list of 30 questions for a “debate”, each of which they can have 2 minutes to respond to, and the list is given to them one week prior to the debate itself. When they come in, we’ll see who truly has the best-researched and well-founded response to the topics.
You might say, “But Hanlon, that just means they can pawn the questions off to aides and campaign managers rather than doing the work themselves!” Well that may be, but that tells us that we’ll have a president who is surrounded by smart people who can help him get to the right conclusion. And I would much rather have a president who does that than have a charming speaker who puts less thought into a response to a terrorist attack than I put into my order at Burger King.